The ISIS threat to India: an assessment

In what ways is ISIS a threat to India?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

The Paris terror attacks by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) have quite naturally fueled concerns about the threat posed by this group to India. The concerns deepen given the backdrop that India has been the target of various terror outfits in different geographies for nearly thirty years. A recent report by the Global Terrorism Index 2015 (GTI) ranked India 6th out of 162 nations most affected by terrorism in 2014.

So far, the concerns over the threats posed by ISIS to India have been based on a few disparate events. First, in mid 2014, DaeeshISIS showed its interest in the Indian sub-continent when it issued a map depicting the western part of the India to be a part of the Islamic State of Khorasan. Second, Mehdi Biswas, a resident of Bengaluru was arrested in December 2014 on account of evangelising for the Islamic State through his twitter account @Shamiwitness. Third and most recently, an assessment by security agencies revealed that there are close to 23 Indians fighting with the terror group in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, we have also witnessed widespread opposition to the ISIS ideology and barbarity. For instance, the Maulana of Jama Masjid in Bengaluru and several other clerics have repeatedly issued alerts to the Muslim community to be wary of the ISIS.

So how does one filter these different and often conflicting reports and make sense of the threat posed by ISIS to India? Essentially, the ISIS threat to India can be seen at three levels. This article describes the levels and assesses the threat perception for each level.

The first level of threat is that ISIS might launch a frontal attack against the Indian state like it has done in Syria and Iraq. However, the probability of this occurrence is minimum. The primary reason being that India is only at the periphery of an Arab-Sunni centric project. In fact, India was not a primary focus even for groups such as the Al-qaeda and its founder Osama Bin Laden. These Arab groups view the syncretic tenets of Indian Islam as heretic and a corruption from the original teachings of the Quran. Based on the current evidence, it is highly unlikely that ISIS will want to wage a full scale war in a country where it has little interest, or support.

From India’s perspective it would be appropriate to keep a close watch and monitor developments. We should, in a way be grateful for the buffer that Pakistan affords us. The Pakistan Army and the ISI would not allow the ISIS to grow big because that would weaken their own homemade military-jihadi complex.

The second level of threat is India becoming a recruiting ground for ISIS to conduct its operations in India and elsewhere in the world. The threat perception for this level is medium to high. The reason being that India has more than 350 million people who are connected to the internet and it is likely that some of them will fall prey to ISIS’ ingenious ways of luring Muslim youths through their online propaganda.

People are now part of radically networked communities — webs of hyper-connected individuals possessing a common imagined identity and motivated by a political cause. Given that information flows at a much faster pace in such networks, the state will increasingly find it difficult to respond in time and clamp down on those who spread hatred. The government will have to track repeat offenders online, just like it is done in the offline world. Improving intelligence in the online domain will be needed to manage  this threat level.

The biggest threat that ISIS poses to India is that it will act as a totem for local Indian terror outfits. Such groups would want to claim association with ISIS regardless of whether they agree or know about the ISIS ideology. With the dismantling of the Indian Mujahideen, several radical extremists groups are looking for an alternate identity and ISIS may well provide the much desired character. The appearance of black flags in Jammu and Kashmir preceding the Indian PM’s visit was one such instance where local insurgent outfits were using the name of ISIS in order to garner attention. It is this threat that is most likely to hurt India in the short to medium term.

Tackling this challenge of local Indian terror outfits seeking an ISIS badge would essentially require India to eradicate the discontent amongst Muslims in India. In the past, the issues that have driven Indian Muslims to take up arms against the state or other communities are not those which concern the global ummah but are issues of discrimination and coercive majoritarianism within India. Hence, if we can uphold the values of pluralism and tolerance which characterise Indian nationalism, this threat can be managed.

Last but not the least, the biggest threat to India’s national security still comes from the jihadi elements of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. Dismantling this complex in Pakistan and putting an end to majoritarianism back home will ensure that foreign terror outfits, whether Pakistani or Arabs, will find it difficult to challenge the idea of India.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas